Setting aside, for a moment, the ongoing crisis of gun violence and the intergenerational poverty from which it emerges, the St. Louis region has seen a few bursts of genuinely good news of late. Schnuck Markets decided to end the sale of tobacco products, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater St. Louis opened a new Teen Center for Excellence in Ferguson, BJC HealthCare announced it will raise the minimum wage for all employees to $15 in three increments, and the new chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis made two bold announcements during his inauguration address.
On Thursday, October 3, Chancellor Andrew D. Martin announced that lower-income full-time students from Missouri and Southern Illinois accepted for admission at Washington University will receive a free undergraduate education beginning in fall 2020. The offer (for undergraduate students who are Pell Grant-eligible or from families with $75,000 in annual total gross income or less) also will be extended to undergraduate students already enrolled at the university who would qualify. It’s a bold statement of commitment to further diversifying the university and to the region where it is located. We commend him and the Board of Trustees for it.
Even more impactful for the region will be his statement of renewed and intensified commitment to the region that Martin made in his first public comments as chancellor. Washington University has seen itself traditionally as a launching pad for its graduates, sending them to further their education and careers elsewhere, making St. Louis essentially a temporary pass-through. Martin said the new free tuition pledge was crafted in the hope that these students “stay in the region to work, start their own businesses, conduct important research or practice their craft. This will boost the St. Louis regional economy and deepen our local talent pool.” This pointed focus on keeping more Washington University graduates in the region – something more familiar coming from other schools like Maryville University, Webster University and the University of Missouri-St. Louis – is new and very welcome.
It came with a new catchphrase. Washington University added “in St. Louis” to its proper name in 1976, not to state its commitment to the region, as we might hope, but rather “in order to better distinguish our institution in the national media,” according to university archives. But Martin deliberately committed to the region by calling the institution “Washington University for St. Louis,” stating “a commitment between us and the greater St. Louis region as we look to strengthen our community partnerships and impact ‘In STL and For STL.’”
He stressed four goals of this new commitment: to open the university’s educational doors to more people living in St. Louis and beyond, to become a better employer (it’s the region’s third-largest), to bolster its partnership with BJC (the region’s largest employer) on health access and disparity work, and to confront the region’s most significant social issues. These social issues include “some of the largest income disparities in the nation, health disparities that are unacceptable, high levels of crime, malnutrition, looming environmental concerns, and limited educational opportunities for far too many children.”
That is a bracing list. Chancellors must be, among other things, salesmen, and this is no way to sell the St. Louis region to parents of promising students from elsewhere. It’s plain talk about the region as it is to the people who live and work here. To see the new chancellor of Washington University talk about this region as it actually is and state a commitment to improving it gives us genuine hope that we really will start to force more positive change here. Bold, intentional leadership from Washington University can be transformational, and its engagement raises the bar for the region’s institutions to increase their commitment to the community. A sometimes slumbering giant has awoke, and we welcome this global research university’s vast strength and influence as we go back to work trying to improve this place that we love so dearly.